About the first impressions we leave with each other through poor writing.
|Putting your best foot forward.
You’ve got a job interview. What do you do?
You take a shower, wash your hair, brush your teeth, put on clean clothes and you do your best to arrive on time. Don’t you?
That’s called making a good first impression.
Ever been in a bad mood and had the supermarket check-out person look at you strangely or react to your bad mood by not being overly polite? The what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude works hand in hand with “do unto others…” All the supermarket checkout person will remember about you is that you were grumpy and impolite – most of us don’t normally give a perfect stranger the benefit of doubt by saying “he’s just having a bad day. Otherwise he’d smile at me.” If someone rubs us the wrong way, he gets quickly categorized and stereotyped.
“What’s this got to do with anything?” you ask.
We’re all here on a public writing site. We’re all basically strangers one to another until we find reasons to get to know certain people hiding behind a writer’s handle. The first time we interact with each other leaves a good or bad impression on all of us, and the tool we use to leave that impression is the written language. We all interact every week with total strangers here on WDC and it would be nice if we were all equally concerned about putting our best foot forward.
Many people announce loud and clear in their portfolio introductions that they can’t spell. Many even seem proud of it. It is possible to be very articulate when speaking, but here on WDC we’re not telling people about our reactions to a poem or an essay. That means we have only one option for our ideas to be taken seriously: writing them. And to do that well, we all need to learn to place them correctly on paper. The essential tools of any writer are to learn to spell, to write proper phrases and to use proper grammar. This last includes punctuation and capitalization, two elements which are particularly difficult to incorporate creatively into poetry.
Writing and speaking are not, I repeat, not, the same things. Many of us will say in everyday language “dunno.” Which means “I do not know”. It’s a verbal abbreviation of one word for four. If you try and write “dunno” in an exam paper or on a job application, you will be judged accordingly for confusing the spoken and written word, and the resulting impression will most always be negative. In many families parents do not know how to help their children learn any more. Or they choose not to do so by not learning themselves what they do not know in order to truly help their children.
I recently received a review for a sonnet where the reviewer told me in the first sentence that my poem was filled with insuperable word combinations. To me that was an insult because there was nothing insuperable to me in my work. When I called him on his word choice, showing him point by point in my text how things could not be qualified as “insuperable”, he quickly changed his tone by telling me that two spots in my poem were “confusing.” There’s a huge difference between the two adjectives. So why write insuperable when you mean confusing? Although I accepted his apology, I am not yet motivated to go looking into his port. Why? Because of the first impression he left me.
Putting your best foot forward. If you take the time to correctly write what you truly mean, people will have a better idea of who you are because you clearly express what you feel. This is also one way to avoid hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
Never be afraid to read a text a second or third time before you critique it. Even when you post your own texts here on WDC as a static item, never forget about the editing stage. A sloppy text can give your reader the impression that you don’t care about its presentation, or that you are in too much of a hurry to correct your typos, whether they appear in your latest review or the carefully chosen words of your latest poem or short story. You may not be a sloppy person at all, but a combination of circumstances that evening made you rush around to finish quickly what you were writing. You were impatient to get it posted in your port and that made you forget about the proofreading and editing stages which are necessary to all of us before posting anything for public viewing. It almost never happens that a poem, short story or essay is perfect from its conception and does not become better through careful editing. Unfortunately your readers do not know any of the justifiable circumstances behind your latest poorly edited text and more often than not don’t care. The first impression you left, whatever the reason, has left its mark.
If we here on WDC want to be taken seriously as writers, we have to know how to use all of the tools available to us. One important tool in any computer’s Word Processing Software is the Spell Check. I can even set up my internet browser to catch any spelling error I make, and in two languages, French and English, the languages I use daily. That means that every time I write something in any window here on WDC, my computer tells me automatically when I’ve made an error. I have this possibility because I’ve looked into, and found, a tool which helps me overcome my dyslexia. Even though I spell out loud as I write and am an excellent typist, I too, get in a hurry and my fingers frequently hit the wrong keys in spite of the fact that I do everything I know how to do to avoid problems. But I do not place a text online which still has red waving lines underneath certain words. If the spell-checker does not know them and I am uncertain of their spelling, I go for my dictionaries.
There, their and they’re. No spell-checker will catch these errors for all three words exist in English. Only you can do that by slowly rereading your text and correcting the homonyms like these. English is filled with them. I say rereading slowly because we all know what we intended to write and will frequently convince ourselves that me have indeed wrote correctly what he intended. (The errors are deliberate.) By taking our time to carefully compare what we see before our eyes with what we intended to write, we catch all of the silly errors. Or most of them. We are, after all, only human, and what is it they say about “to err is human”?
So, if you write a review of my latest poem and your text is filled with errors, I probably will do one of the following: ignore what you have to say because you have not put your best foot forward to convince me through the clarity of your text that what you have to say should be valid in my eyes also; or I will send you back your critique with all of your errors corrected for you.
And last but not least. Capital I. I thoroughly agree that it is very frustrating not being able to systematically hit the Caps key before writing the word I. It is my biggest error personally, but fortunately my computer corrects this mistake for me. Hence, many people seemingly take the short cut and write “i” do this, “i” thought about this. Do not do so. In poetry, not capitalizing the word “i” has become part of a common element making up a certain type of personal style, which was invented several decades ago by e.e. cummings. When young poets try to justify their choices after I express my opinion that this adds nothing to most poetry, I respond by asking them: “If you were to write a poem about Cathy and Liza’s doll collection, would you not capitalize their names?” Nine times out of ten you would do so. Using the pronoun I is a writer’s way of naming himself – “I think this about improper capitalization” means “I, Alfred Booth, think this about improper capitalization.” I’m talking about myself. In most every language, there is a word we use to name ourselves and in English it is the pronoun I.
So when writing a review, or an e-mail to people, please capitalize the proper words. If you have no respect for yourself by being in such a hurry that you don’t type in your own name correctly, who will take you seriously? I, for one, frequently do not. I may be insensitive, but we all have to draw the line somewhere concerning what we feel is acceptable writing coming from other people.
Many young writers have also responded to me that they don’t care what people think about their writing. While that may be true — who am I to say that they are wrong? — and it is an easy attitude to assume because of the faceless anonymity here on WDC, I am certain that these same people would not react the same way in my initial scenario of a job interview, thinking it unfair to be misjudged on a first impression. Whether we like it or not, people will judge us, more often than not, on our looks, or, here on WDC, on the only part of us that is visible to others: our words.
Choose them well! And never forget the Spell-Check tool and to take as much time as you did composing your words to proofread them before sending them to anyone. Even to the people you know well.